Some time ago I was involved in a rather heated discussion on another blog about the expectations that readers may reasonably have of writers. Among the many questions under debate was how unreasonable it was of me to "be hard on" male authors who portrayed women in 1 dimensional and stereotyped ways if those authors themselves lived in a time and culture where such attitudes were normal.
The discussion soon focused on a rather narrow moment in time as one poster responded to criticisms of an author by making the argument that it was unreasonable of me to expect a more enlightened attitude toward women from an author writing in the late 1960s. When I demonstrated that other authors writing at roughly the same time had been published (and received awards for) books that showed far more nuanced, varied and challenging images of women the poster countered by claiming that such writing was extraordinary and exceptional and that thus it was unreasonable of me to expect it of the author in question.
I will leave for a future post a discussion of the tendency of people to find it personally insulting a writer they enjoy(ed) is racist, exist or homophobic in order to write to the poster's claim that to see and write about women in a way that recognized their varied abilities, intellects and interests and that recognized and valued them in a way that did not objectify them was, in 1970, extraordinary and exceptional.
I have been, for the last day, reading Mrs. Ames, a book written by E. F. Benson and published in 1912. Benson is probably best known and remembered today for his Mapp and Lucia series and for his ghost stories. He was a popular and successful writer who wrote both fiction and nonfiction but is not considered among the great writers of his time. Yet in reading this book, which follows the life a number of upper middle-class families in a sleepy English town in the years leading up to what they would come to call "The Great War," I find a deeper, more thoughtful and, sometimes, chilling picture of interior and exterior life of women than in many books written in the intervening years..
The titular Mrs. Ames becomes involved in the Suffragette movement. As the book opened she had been vaguely in support of it and she becomes more active in it as a "stunt" to reclaim her place as social leader of village society. However her involvement has an unexpected effects on her and the others who follow her:
Benson is, in many ways, the most conventional of writers. One might theorize that he, the son of woman who found companionship in partnership with another woman after her husband, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died, might have observed some of what he was writing about over the dinner table at home. Neither Benson nor any of his siblings married and some have claimed that he was himself was gay. What is clear is that this good, but clearly not exceptionally good, and thoughtful but anything but ground-breaking author was able to observe, and empathize with, the realities of life for women of his class.
So, to answer that poster, I do not think it was unreasonable of me to not "give a pass" to a man writing in the 1970s. I was only asking him to be at least as observant and empathetic as was Benson writing over 50 years earlier.